Education Looks Eastward: Snapshots from Beijing's Global Education...

Digital Learning

Education Looks Eastward: Snapshots from Beijing's Global Education Technology Summit

By Jeffrey R. Young     Nov 14, 2018

Education Looks Eastward: Snapshots from Beijing's Global Education Technology Summit

Beijing—China is a different world when it comes to education and tech. Teachers are revered, most families spend about a third of their income on their children’s education, and most students spend at least an hour a day on some kind of online learning.

To try to better understand this dynamic and fast-changing environment, thousands of entrepreneurs and education leaders from 34 countries gathered here this week for the Global Education Technology Summit.

China had a reputation for copying technology from Silicon Valley, but these days the country has developed its own unique technology environment—what a new book by Kai-Fu Lee, former head of Google China, calls an “alternate internet universe.”

Whereas earlier Chinese tech companies sought to directly mimic the U.S.—Baidu is the ‘Google of China,” and RenRen is ‘the Facebook of China,’ for instance—these days China has been swept away with a homegrown creation called WeChat, which allows an app ecosystem within its app, and connects with bank accounts to let users pay for just about anything by putting their smartphone screen up to a scanner. An estimated 34 percent of all mobile internet traffic in China flows through WeChat.

And government leaders have been pushing entrepreneurship, coding and artificial intelligence, setting a goal of leading the world in AI by 2030.

JMDedu's CEO and founder, Chujiu Mei, kicking off the Global Education Technology Summit this week.

It’s also a place where companies are racing into technologies that raise tough ethical issues. Several companies at the event boast features that can use webcams on laptops to analyze how attentive students are to a lesson and log that information to share with teachers and students—a practice that one speaker at the conference stressed could end up being counterproductive to learning.

The conference was organized by JMDedu, a publication covering edtech in China. (EdSurge is currently working out a partnership with JMDedu, so stay tuned for details.)

So what's the latest in edtech in this alternate internet universe? EdSurge walked the exhibit hall and sessions and talks (and made new contacts on WeChat) to take the pulse.

Online education boom

Even just a few years ago parents in China were highly skeptical of online education. But that reluctance is gone, replaced by an enthusiasm and a booming ecosystem of new companies trying to serve a growing audience—especially for online tutoring and English-language learning.

There are eight to ten millions students taking online tutoring in the country, according to a new survey by LEK Consulting that was presented at the conference.

“It’s a convenience play, to avoid Beijing or Shanghai traffic,” said Anip Sharma, a partner at the firm.

Online tutoring Isn't completely replacing in-person tutoring centers, though, he said. Instead, the demand is so large that families are choosing a mix of both, Sharma said.

The other reason that online tutoring is so popular is that it lets students connect to native English speakers in other countries. That means many of the tutors live in the U.S., often teachers supplementing their incomes.

Walking the exhibit hall highlighted this online boom, with companies in booth after booth delivering online tutoring, recruiting tutors from abroad or offering other support services.

Companies Looking for New Markets

Of course, the conference attracted plenty of companies from abroad trying to break into the Chinese market.

“Everyone was saying, 'You’ve got to go to China,' so finally I said, 'Let’s go check it out,'” said Nick Winter, founder and CEO of CodeCombat, a game-based service that teaches the Python coding language, as he sat in his booth here.

Nick Winter, founder and CEO of CodeCombat (center), hoped to raise awareness of his game-based service to teach computer coding.

The company ended up forging a partnership with the Chinese tech giant NetEase, which offers a mix of services including email and video games. Having a local partner is particularly important in China, according to many entrepreneurs here, both for cultural reasons and because of strict regulations.

“We launched in April [in China], and all the sudden in one month we have more users in China than in the rest of the world combined, which is pretty crazy,” Winter said.

One key to that success was lucky timing, he admits. A few months before he released the Chinese version, government leaders in the country made a move to require more coding in schools.

It also helps that Winter’s previous startup made a mobile app to teach Chinese, and he speaks a little himself. He gave a short talk about his company at the conference in Chinese.

“China’s got the best education market in the world, as it turns out,” he said.

Remote Control for Life

Many sessions offered practical advice for those wanting to work in China, and often the advice was to learn the unique tech tools of China—especially WeChat, which is so ubiquitous here it has earned the nickname the “remote control for life.”

Instead of exchanging business cards, many people here connected on WeChat by pulling up their personal WeChat QR codes on their phones and letting the other person scan it.

During one panel, Perry Kalmus, co-founder Princeton Academy for College Admissions, suggested connecting on WeChat with as many people you meet in China as possible to build a network, and he advised using a tagging function to make notations about who each person is and how you met, so you can search it later.

Companies entering China might want to find an influential WeChat user to champion their product, too, Kalmus said. “If you can find that mother who’s got the 500, the 50,000 followers, that’s a great way in,” he said. “Find her and convince her that your product is amazing.”

At the end of that session, the moderator posted a QR code for a WeChat discussion group where attendees could connect with the speakers after the talk. As the panelists left the stage, dozens of people in the audience stood up with their phones to snap a picture of the code, so they could stay connected.

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